This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

A silk map of the German/Swiss border, featuring detailed escape instructions and clearly designated “SECRET.” BRITISH LIBRARY/PUBLIC DOMAIN
A silk map of the German/Swiss border, featuring detailed escape instructions and clearly designated “SECRET.” BRITISH LIBRARY/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From how refugees have the power to change society to how millions of secret silk maps helped POWs escape captivity, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. 

How refugees have the power to change the society they join

Alejandra Dubcovsky

In the late 17th century, small bands of refugees began making their way into Spanish Florida. At first, they arrived in small numbers, carrying little more than the clothes on their backs, and without generating much interest. The material demands they might place on the Spanish state were at best modest. Yet these refugees and their experience in Spanish Florida would raise nettlesome political questions. Refugees have a special power to unsettle political communities, one that far outstrips their claim on practical resources.

The refugees to Spanish North America came from all over what is now Florida and Georgia, and headed primarily to St Augustine, the region’s Spanish hub. By 1700, St Augustine was more than a century old, and had endured starvation, invasions, slaving, disease, pirates and isolation. Refugees were not in any unequivocal way its most obviously dangerous challenge. But that would soon change. [continue reading]

Republicans Return to Their Roots

Nicole Hemmer
US News and World Report

The evolution of the Republican Party in the past several months has been breathtaking to witness. The party of Reagan is now deeply suspicious of free trade and security alliances while growing ever more fond of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. Policy positions, especially in trade and foreign policy, have flipped with such extraordinary speed that it seems like there must be some core instability in the party, a will to power that has shattered any foundational principles.

That may be true. But the party’s rapid abandonment of long-held principles has been possible in large part because it draws on the right’s deeper history, a history that reaches back before the Cold War to a nascent conservative movement. That movement grew not out of McCarthyism but an inward-looking nationalism, one that has re-emerged with Donald Trump. The story of modern American conservatism cannot be understood without first understanding the America First Committee, the short-lived anti-interventionist movement founded in 1940. Its members ran the ideological spectrum – socialists, progressives, conservatives, fascists – but the AFC drew most of its membership from around Chicago, where conservative nationalism flourished in the 1940s and 1950s. [continue reading]

The American Colonization Society: 200 Years of the “Colonizing Trick”

Nicholas Guyatt
Black Perspectives

Two hundred years ago this week, dozens of the nation’s most powerful men met in the Davis Hotel in Washington to plot the removal of African Americans from the United States. With the blessing of James Madison and James Monroe, the president and president-elect, they formed the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization that was as well known in the nineteenth century as it is obscure today. For the next forty years, the ACS provided the most ‘respectable’ answer to a simple question: what would happen to black people if slavery was abolished? Since the 1770s, when British and French abolitionists had begun to influence American thinking on race, ‘benevolent’ whites in the United States had recognized a contradiction between slavery and “all men are created equal.” But they were nervous about living alongside recently-freed black people in a race-blind republic. Colonization allowed them to celebrate their antislavery sentiments while promoting a future in which racial equality required separation.

The roots of colonization thinking can be traced back to the 1770s, and follow two distinct strands. African Americans first debated the merits of a separate black nation as a means of escaping white prejudice. In 1773, four slaves in Massachusetts petitioned the colonial legislature for a gradual emancipation plan, promising to remove themselves to Africa once freed. Emigration schemes were debated within free black communities on the eastern seaboard throughout the 1780s and 1790s. In the 1810s, the Massachusetts sea captain Paul Cuffe visited Sierra Leone on two occasions, hoping to open a channel by which black Americans might relocate to West Africa. For Cuffe and other black leaders, the astonishing achievement of Haitian independence in 1804 provided a powerful example of self-determination. Although this African American strand of colonization enthusiasm never enjoyed majority support among black Americans, it continued to inspire figures as diverse as John Mercer Langston, Martin Delany, and Henry Highland Garnet through the 1850s. [continue reading]

British black power: from shrug to school syllabus in six short years

Mark Brown

When Robin Bunce and Paul Field began their research into the British black power movement about six years ago the repeated response was: “What British black power movement? Do you mean America?”

Now, with two major TV series expected, a film in the planning, inclusion on the school syllabus and the first university course in black studies, it is a question heard less and less. “It has been an extraordinary turnaround,” said Bunce. “I imagine by the end of this year the black power movement will be something seen as part of the fabric of our history. It will be accepted by everyone. That will be an amazing reversal and it is enormously exciting.” [continue reading]

How Millions Of Secret Silk Maps Helped POWs Escape Their Captors in WWII

Cara Giaimo
Atlas Obscura

Imagine it’s 1942, and you’re a member of Britain’s Royal Air Force. In a skirmish above Germany, your plane was shot out of the sky, and since then you’ve been hunkered down in a Prisoner of War camp. Your officers have told you it’s your duty to escape as soon as you can, but you can’t quite figure out how—you’ve got no tools and no spare rations, and you don’t even know where you are.

One day, though, you’re playing Monopoly with your fellow prisoners when you notice a strange seam in the board. You pry it open—and find a secret compartment with a file inside. In other compartments, other surprises: a compass, a wire saw, and a map, printed on luxurious, easily foldable silk and showing you exactly where you are, and where safety is. You’ve received a package from Christopher Clayton Hutton—which means you’re set to go. [continue reading]


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